Communism: A Family Drama in Epic Theater by Walter Benjamin

On the occasion of the world premiere of Brecht’s play Die Mutter [The Mother].

Brecht has said of Communism that it is “the middle term.” “Communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical.” How radical it is can be seen in its attitude toward the family – as in every other matter. It insists upon the family at any price, even where intensification of family life can only aggravate the suffering already caused by conditions utterly unworthy of human being. Communism is not radical. Therefore, it has no intention of simply abolishing family relations. It merely tests them to determine their capacity for change. It asks itself: Can the family be dismantled so that its components may be socially refunctioned? These components are not so much the family members themselves as their relationships with one another. Of these, it is clear that none is more important than the relationship between mother and child. Furthermore, the mother, among all family members, is the most unequivocally determined as to her social function: she produces the next generation. The question raised by Brecht’s play is: Can this social function become a revolutionary one, and how? In a capitalist economic system, the more directly a person is engaged in production relations, the more he or she is subjected to exploitation. Under today’s conditions, the family is an organization for the exploitation of the worker as mother. Pelagea Vlassova, “widow of a worker and mother of a worker,” is therefore someone who is doubly exploited: first, as a member of the working class, and, second, as a woman and mother. The doubly exploited childbearer represents the exploited in their most extreme oppression. If mothers are revolutionized, there is nothing left to revolutionize. Brecht’s subject is a sociological experiment concerning the revolutionizing of a mother. This explains a number of simplifications which are not agitational but constructive. “Widow of a worker, mother of a worker” – here lies the first simplification.  Pelagea Vlassova is the mother of only one worker, and for this reason she somewhat contradicts the original meaning of the word “proletarian woman” (proles , in Latin, means descendants). This mother has only one son. The one is enough. For it turns out that with this one lever she can operate the mechanisms which channels her maternal energies toward the entire working class. Her first duty is to cook. Producer of a man, she becomes the reproducer of his working strength. But there is no longer enough to eat for such reproduction. The son looks with contempt at the food she puts in front of him. How easily this look can wound the mother. She cannot help herself because she does not yet know that “the decision about the meat lacking in the kitchen is not made in the kitchen.” This, or something like it, is surely written in the leaflets she goes out to distribute. Not in order to help Communism, but in order to help her son, whose turn it is to distribute them. This is how her work for the party begins. And in this way she transforms the antagonism which threatened to develop between herself and her son into an antagonism against their mutual enemy. This attitude of a mother is the sole suitable form of help – followed here into its true, original housing, the folds of a mother’s skirt – that can at the same time acquire a social validity (as the solidarity of the oppressed) which it possessed before only in an animal sense. The road which the mother travels is that from this first kind of help to the ultimate form, the solidarity of the working class. Her speech to the mothers who queue up to hand in their copper kitchenware is not a pacifist one; it is a revolutionary exhortation to the childbearers who, by betraying the causes of the weak, also betray the cause of their own young, their children. And so we see that the mother’s way to the party starts first with helping, and comes to theory only afterward. This is the second constructive simplification. The purpose of these simplifications is to underline the simplicity of the lessons they teach. It is in the nature of the Epic Theater to replace the undialectical oppositions between the form and content of consciousness (which meant that a character can refer to his own actions only be reflections) by the dialectical one between theory and praxis (which meant that any action making a breakthrough opens up a clearer view of theory). Epic Theater, therefore, is the theater of the hero who is beaten. A hero who is not beaten never makes a thinker. “Spare the rod and spoil the hero,” to modify one of our forefathers’ pedagogical maxims. There is something special about the “lessons” with which the mother occupies herself, as if with commentary on her own behavior, during her times of defeat or of waiting (for Epic Theater, there is no difference between the two): she sings them. She sings, “What Are the Objections to Communism?” She sings, “Learn, Woman of Sixty!” She Sings, “In Praise of the Third Cause.” And she sings these songs as a mother. For they are lullabies. Lullabies for Communism, which is small and weak but irresistibly growing. This Communism she has taken unto herself as a mother. It becomes clear, too, that she is loved by Communism as only a mother is loved: she is loved not for the sake of her beauty or her fame or her excellences, but as the inexhaustible source of help. She represents help at its source, where it is still pure-flowing, where it is still practical and not false, from where it can still be channeled without reservation to that which, without reservation, needs help – namely, Communism. The mother is praxis incarnate. We see this when she makes tea, and we see it when she wraps up the piroshkis; when she is visiting her son in prison, we see that every single things she does with her hands serves Communism; and when she is hit by stones and the policemen strike her with their rifle butts, we see that whenever a hand is raised against her in vain. The mother is praxis incarnate. This means that we shall find in her not enthusiasm but reliability. Yet she would not be reliable if she had not, at first, raised objections against Communism. But – and this is the decisive fact – her objections were not those of an interested party but those of common sense. “It’s necessary, therefore it isn’t dangerous” – she’ll never accept statements like that. And she has just as little use for utopias. “Does Mr. Sukhlinov own his factory or doesn’t he? Well, then!” You can explain to her, however, that his ownership of the factory is a limited one. And so, step-by-step, she travels along the path of ordinary common sense. – “if you’ve a disagreement with Mr. Sukhlinov, what has that got to do with the police?” This step-by-step advance of ordinary common sense, the opposite of radicalism, leads the mother to the head of the May Day demonstration, where she is beaten down. So much for the mother. It is time to turn the tables and ask: If the mother leads, what is happening to the son? It is the son, after all, who reads books and prepares himself for leadership. There are four characters – mother and son, theory and praxis – and they regroup themselves; they play a game of change and change about. Once the critical moment arrives when ordinary common sense becomes the leader, theory is only good enough to do the housework. The son must cut bread while the mother, who is illiterate, works the printing press; the necessity of life no longer catalogues people according to their sex. In the workers’ room, space is made for a blackboard between the kitchen range and the bed. When the State is turned upside down for the sake of a kopeck, much will change within the family, too; and at the moment the place of the bride, who personifies the ideal of the future, will be taken by the mother, who, with all her forty years’ experience, will confirm Marx and Lenin. The dialectic has no need of a far distance shrouded in mist. It is at home within the four walls of praxis, and it stands on the threshold of the moment to speak the closing words of the play: “And ‘Never’ becomes, ‘Before the day is out!'”

Published in “Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: 1931-1934”, 559-62. Originally published in Die literarische Welt, Feb 1932. Gesammelte Schriften, II, 511-514. Translated by Anna Bostock


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